Helping Game Developers Tackle the Toughest Game

Helping Game Developers Tackle the Toughest Game


Building a commercially successful educational game can be tougher than beating the old arcade classic Donkey Kong with one quarter.

There are many challenges: Many teachers and parents have traditionally viewed games as providing largely entertainment--not education--value. The existing research for their learning value has been shoddy. Publishing and distribution channels--particularly in the K-12 market--are difficult to navigate. And there’s the cold possibility that educational games may simply not be as fun as mainstream titles.

But educational game developers--and the many hardcore gamers working in them--are a steely bunch. And now, a new online resource promises to help them learn from the successes (and mistakes) of their peers, see how games are actually used in classrooms, and connect with a broad community of developers, academics and investors.

On February 10, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center held a launch party at Zynga’s headquarters in San Francisco for, a website devoted to bringing together the latest in industry news, game-based learning (GBL) research, commentaries from developers, market trends and funding opportunities.

The website is overseen by the Games and Learning Publishing Council, chaired by Milton Chen, a senior fellow at Edutopia, and whose members include thought leaders across the academia, K-12, venture capital, industry and gaming industries. The multi-disciplinary composition, says the site’s editorial director (and former journalist), Lee Banville, helps ensure that the site can be an “honest broker of information” about the industry.

“Game-based learning is no longer on the fringe in conversations about education,” Banville tells EdSurge. “And having all of these different sectors represented will make it difficult for the industry to get too ‘pie in the sky’ about the market realities and how games will actually work in the classroom.”

Kickoff panel (from left): Ken Weber (, Milton Chen (Edutopia), Jessica Lindl (GlassLab), Lee Banville (editorial director) Photo credit: Lori Takeuchi

Banville is referring to the “edutainment” era of the 1990’s, during which many once-promising educational gaming companies were swallowed up in a series of failed mergers and acquisitions that ultimately gave the industry a bad name and turned many investors away.

The biggest difference in the learning games industry today, Banville says, is the focus on formal education as the target market. “A lot of developers are eyeing schools as the major target. They’re not going for instant success like Call of Duty. They’re ready to make less money initially to establish a long-term presence in schools,” he says.

To this extent, offers to help developers make sense of unsexy--but critical--school policies and issues like FERPA, COPPA and Common Core. At the panel accompanying the website’s launch, Chen added that one of the site’s main goals is to connect developers with researchers and teachers and “communicate the value of games to new audiences without jargon.”

All of the content is currently available for free. The effort is funded in part by a $1.46 million grant from the Gates Foundation awarded to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in November 2012.

The renaissance of the educational games industry is in its early days, Banville says, and many questions about distribution and efficacy remain. “It’s not clear yet when it comes to what works, what doesn’t, and what ‘works’ really means.”

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